Don’t Be Afraid of Google’s Ambient Computing

Google's smart home is like a warm, always watching, digital embrace

Person lying on a "google couch" looking at a smartphone
Google Ambient Computing.

 Lifewire / Maritsa Patrinos

The dream of a smart home is now as real as the foundation under your home, but just as we’re getting a grip on the concept of an always on, always watching, always responding abode, companies switch up the terminology into something that, taken the wrong way, can sound vaguely sinister: Ambient Computing.

Google's use of the word ambient means, loosely, “encompassing.” It’s another way of saying ubiquitous but for some reason, the term “ambient” puts home intelligence in a different space. Ambient is there, but not present, meaning it’s accessible, but if you’re not looking for it, you don’t see it. Why does it sound like I’m describing a ghost?

Google SVP Rick Osterloh
Google SVP Rick Osterloh explains Ambient Computing.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Getting Googled

All this occurred to me as Google unveiled a collection of new Google Assistant-enabled intelligent products, including new Nest Wifi/smart speakers, Google Pixel Buds that let you access the Assistant without touching them, a Google PixelBook Go Chromebook that lives online (except when it doesn’t), Nest Minis that can now attach to a vertical wall, and the deeply Google-infused Google Pixel 4, a smartphone that is as purely Google (and Android) as any device on the planet.

As a company, Google has been transforming in recent months from a voracious, data-eating online entity that organizes the world’s information to something kinder, gentler, or, as CEO Sundar Pichai put it last May, “Our goal is to build a more helpful Google for everyone."

Google SVP, Devices & Services Rick Osterloh echoed that sentiment on Tuesday as he gave the opening remarks at Google’s product launch event in Manhattan, but then he added a crucial twist.

"It's even more useful when computing is anywhere you need it always available to help. Helpful computing can be all around you: 'Ambient Computing.'" At this moment in the presentation there was a loud and ominous, “Dun Dun Daaaah!”

I’m kidding.

Ambient Computing is simply an extension of Google as the “helpful company.”

Osterloh described it as “fluid,” with technology fading into the background when you don’t need it, but using services and, obviously, AI to be ready when you do.

Being both helpful and ambient shifts the power dynamic between users and devices and, perhaps, between users and Google as a datavore.

“The devices aren’t the center of the system,” said Osterloh, “You are.”

A New Approach to Ecosystems

The thread weaving its way through Google’s Ambient Computing system is Google Assistant, the digital and voice assistant that exists on every single device Google introduced this week. That does not mean, however, that the Assistant is front and center in every task.

According to Google, your tasks are at the forefront and the Assistant (and the devices it lives on) fills the gap between need and execution on an on-demand basis. It’s an important shift in either perception or the actual relationship between consumers and the smart gadgets they own.

“Devices shouldn’t determine if they participate or not. The user should, based on what they want to accomplish,” Mark Spates, Google’s Product Lead for smart speakers explained to me later.

I had asked Spates how he might explain the concept of Ambient Computing to confused consumers. He told me that it’s helpful to think of it in context of the difference between smartphones that are amazing personal computers we carry with us in our pockets and what we have in our homes where there’s no single device that similarly powers all our computing tasks (communication, entertainment, security).

That makes sense. Even though Google’s Nest Wifi handles connectivity and, as a smart speaker, some communication tasks, it’s not watching your house as a Nest Cam might. Similarly, Nest Cam can’t show you YouTube videos like your Nest Hub, or who's at your front door like Nest Hello, and only the Pixelbook Go has a keyboard for direct text entry (though Google Assistant or the new Recorder App will happily transcribe audio-to-text for you).

Made by Google Presentation
A family living in a Google Ambient Computing home.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Choose Your Own Smarthome Adventure

I tried to ask Spates about consumers who don’t follow the path and pick and choose different smart products from different manufacturers. In my home, we have Nest Cams and Nest Thermostats, but often control them with our Amazon Echo smart speakers and iPhones. Spates, though, steered me away from thinking about one-off products and insisted the focus should be on solving problems.

New parents might, Spates suggested, want to keep an eye on their newborn even when they’re not in the room. In that case, the answer is not which smart home system to adopt, but a Nest Cam in the baby’s room and a Nest Hub screen in another. I still think, though, that most consumers don’t consider which ecosystem to adopt until they already have one or two smarthome devices in their homes.

Nest Wifi
You won't have much of a good Ambient Computing home without good Wi-Fi. Nest Wifi is a router and access point combo that also integrates a smart speaker.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Spates, though, admitted that Google hasn’t done the best job of painting that picture. "[We] provided people with a bunch of bricks but have not shown them how to build a house.”

“Ambient Computing” is, for Google, about building a smart house where the smarts are not front and center, just everywhere, waiting and listening for your command, but then slipping back silently when you don’t need them.

Listening and Securing

It’s a nice vision, but even Osterloh’s description of said Ambient Computing home makes it clear that the system is paying attention, pretty much all the time.

It knows via the information you’ve given to Google through all its touch points what information you need in the morning, and can provide it to you on a Nest Hub (or a Google Pixel 4 phone) sitting next to your bed. The weather, appointments, news, and traffic info are all based on who you are, where you live, and what you do specifically, not random information that might be useful to you.

When you leave your home, the system automatically adjusts the lights, thermostat, and security cameras based around your departure. The system watches you go, though it does not wave goodbye.

This idea of a tiny, localized big brother watching and anticipating our needs is, well, a little scary.

[We] provided people with a bunch of bricks but have not shown them how to build a house.

To better understand Ambient Computing and its impact on average consumers, I turned to Ulster University Cyber Security Professor Kevin Curran, who, as the founder of the International Journal of Ambient Computing and Intelligence, was literally one of the first people on the planet to use the term "Ambient Computing."

Prof. Curran told me that for ambient computing to work, "devices need to be able to anticipate our desires" and that data regarding our habits is key to these devices "being able to work for us." He added that "few companies have more useful data on these traits than Google."

As for what Google's Ambient Computing vision means, Curran said, "People seem to love their home assistants and if Google can expand that range into a real ‘home assistant’ as in a cacophony of home devices, then they will simply have an even deeper stronghold in humanity."

Google Home Mini
The Google Home Mini is part of the Ambient Computing picture, too.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

An ambient or surrounding computing system still might, to some, sound more, not less, invasive, which is why Google has simultaneously been adjusting its approach to and communication around its data collection practices.

The introduction of Android 10 on the new Google Pixel 4, for example, marks an important change in how users can manage voice communications with Google Assistant. Now consumers can delete a day or a week of conversations with their voice assistant. In addition, more of the data Google’s smarthome devices collect is stored locally, as opposed to in the cloud.

So What

Don’t misunderstand, Google is still collecting a ton of your data and storing it in the cloud. It’s all anonymized, but location, search, browser history, third-party site visits, it’s all still collected so Google can both serve you better but also still serve you ads that align with your interests. There are now, however, better and more visible privacy controls in Android 10 to help you manage and turn off some of this data collection.

It’s notable that there’s no sign of Google’s data collection activities in Google’s Ambient Computing home. Your Nest thermostat and Nest Mini aren’t serving you ads, and there’s no indication Google has any plans to do so.

Ambient Computing is 2019’s Smart Home writ large. Is it something you want in your home? Google certainly thinks so.

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